Sources claim Bills DC Mike Pettine is one of two favorites for Cleveland head coaching job
Late last week, the Cleveland Browns brass interviewed relatively unheralded Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. On Tuesday, they flew to Mobile, Alabama to speak with Pettine yet again, making him the only candidate to receive a second interview. Sources are now claiming that Pettine will fly to Cleveland on Thursday and partake in a third interview.
After being the first team in the NFL to fire their coach at season's end, the Browns coaching interview process became something of a laughingstock to analysts and media personnel across the nation. The Browns brass fired Chudzinski merely hours after their Week 17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, yet have taken weeks to find his replacement. Days have passed and we've seen a multitude of coaches remove their names from consideration or get hired by other franchises. Sensing the fans' absolute seething hatreduneasiness, Haslam issued a statement claiming they were "strongly committed to finding the right person" and were being "purposefully...methodical in [their] approach". Haslam urged fans that they were "committed to finding the right leader", and it's possible they have found their guy. Now, for the question on everybody's minds:
Who exactly is Mike Pettine?
Pettine has been employed in the NFL since 2002, starting as a coaching assistant with the Baltimore Ravens. Pettine has since served as defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and, most recently, the Buffalo Bills. Pettine inherited the 16th ranked New York Jets defense and took them to first in the league in the matter of only one season. New York's defense has been the strongpoint of their franchise over the last half-decade and Pettine, in no small way, has contributed to their success.
After his contract expired in 2012, Pettine left the Jets and instead chose to fill the defensive coordinator vacancy in Buffalo. The story stayed the same, however. Pettine took the 22nd-ranked Buffalo Bills defense and turned them into a solidly performing defensive unit, finishing the season ranked 10th in the NFL.
"Pettine" and "defensive success" go hand in hand. Under his tutelage, no defense has finished the season ranked outside the top ten.
Below is a quick comparison between Pettine's Buffalo Bills defense and Ray Horton's Cleveland Browns defense in six major categories: yards per game, points per game, tackles, interceptions, sacks, and forced fumbles.
The above table shows that the two teams, while holding consecutive overall rankings, are quite far apart in terms of production. Pettine's Bills defense was among the best in the league in tackles, interceptions and sacks, while the Browns were mediocre in the same categories. Many claimed former Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton to be a defensive guru, yet this defense proved time and time again that they couldn't come through in the clutch. Their 9th overall ranking on NFL.com is based purely off of yards per game, a misnomer for a team that found themselves mired in the bottom half of the league in many categories.
The most telling disparity in stats lies in each team's red zone efficiency. According to the guys at Football Outsiders, the Buffalo Bills allowed a touchdown on less than half of their opponents' red zone appearances (47.1%), good for 6th in the league. Cleveland, however, found themselves ranked 28th in the league in the same category, allowing a touchdown on 64% of opponents' red zone appearances. Cleveland lost two games this season on late fourth-quarter scoring drives, something that clearly left a bad taste in Haslam's mouth. The Browns were a boom or bust defense in 2013, ranking 9th in the league in 3-and-out drives, but also ranking 20th in the league in touchdown drives. They either stopped a team after three plays, or they let them score. Cleveland gave up a touchdown on 21.8 % of drives in 2013, compared to Buffalo's 12th ranked 18.2%.
Another aspect the Bills excelled at was disrupting the passer. The Bills ranked first in the league in quarterback sacks, rushing the passer on nearly 40% of defensive plays. Cleveland's sack leader in 2013 was newly converted outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who recorded a modest 5.5 sacks on the season. Buffalo, in comparison, had four different players record more sacks than Sheard. Even more outstanding, Buffalo had three players record double digit sacks, with defensive end Mario Williams leading the team (13). Because of this high-voltage Buffalo Bills sack attack, Buffalo's opposing quarterbacks were only able to complete 55.3% of their passes, the lowest in the league. Likewise, the Bills held opposing quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 74.9, good for 3rd in the NFL. Pettine's Buffalo Bills defense was a nightmare for opposing QB's, which would be a fantastic asset for a team that has to face Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton twice each per year.
Possibly the greatest asset of Pettine's is his versatility. Coaching and coordinating under Rex Ryan for a majority of his NFL career, Pettine is well-versed in the 3-4 defense. Upon taking the Bills job, many were worried that Pettine would switch the defense from the Bills primary 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 scheme Pettine was used to. However, to the relative joy of Bills fans across the nation, a majority of the Bills defensive alignments featured 4 defensive linemen. Pettine, realizing the talent pool he was working with, kept the best players on the field and didn't try to shoehorn players into positions they weren't best suited for. The Bills suffered from a lack of healthy and talented linebackers, yet were top-heavy in both their defensive line as well as their secondary. Realizing this, Pettine ran close to half of Buffalo's defensive plays out of nickel and dime packages.
Pettine's resume has shown that he is deserving of a head coaching job for his on-the-field production. But the biggest driving factor behind him getting this job could be that he actually wants the job. Many believe that Pettine's interview process was just a practice run for future head coaching offers, but sources close to the coach claim that he wants the job "badly ". For a franchise that fired Chudzinkski, a rookie head coach, local homegrown hero and lifelong Browns fan himself only one year into the job, finding someone who actually wants the job may have proven to be more difficult than finding someone qualified.
To find someone with both of those qualities should be a relatively easy task for most teams. But for Cleveland? A home run.